A team led by the Director General of CIRDAP visited the Ayesha Abed Foundation’s (AAF) Manikgonj project in Bangladesh on 28 May 2017 with a view to seeing the activities of the project on the ground and replicating the most successful NGO’s activities to other CIRDAP Member Countries. This is an initiative of BRAC, the largest NGO in the world. The AAF project was set up by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the Founder and Chairperson of BRAC in his wife’s memory to mainly help women overcome poverty for themselves and their children through their involvement in craft making and other activities.
The production centre visited by the team has 550 makers working with textiles and product design. He was shown round the facilities working with wood making furniture pieces and block prints, and many textile techniques: block printing, dyeing, screen printing, embroidering, sewing the garments, etc. The team also visited the weaving village and a sub-centre.
It may be mentioned here that in the 1970s, BRAC was examining any and all possibilities for alternative forms of productive livelihood, especially for women, and the proper commercialisation of arts and crafts turned out to be a promising option. In 1976, Ayesha Abed, the wife of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, initiated many of the major activities of Aarong—Bengali for ‘village fair’ by identifying and experimenting with various crafts that women could produce at home such as nakshi kantha, embroidered goods, baskets, mats and items made of cane, bamboo and jute. Aarong now has become a most popular lifestyle retail chain in Bangladesh. This ethical brand began in 1978 as a humble means to empower rural artisans to rise above poverty.
Initially the AAF was registered with the government to receive foreign charitable donations and raise funds, but now operates exclusively as a part of Aarong. The AAF board comprises the eight family and friends of the late Ayesha Abed. Its budget is part of the Aarong initiative under BRAC. The AAF workers are all members of BRAC's village organisation groups or the family of the members.
In 2004, Aarong sales totaled almost USD 14 million. It earned a profit of USD 1.96 million for BRAC which was distributed among its agriculture, education, and health programmes, with the majority going to a special programme for the ultra-poor. In 2013, Aarong had crossed USD 50 million in sales. Today, Aarong's reach has spread beyond Manikganj to the rest of the 64 districts of the country. It has grown into a thriving enterprise showcasing ethnic wear to crafts from silks, handloom cotton, endi to terracotta, bamboo, jute and much more. From a single shop, Aarong has grown into one of Bangladesh's biggest retail chains, with 17 stores spread across the major metropolitan areas of the country and over 100 fashion and lifestyle product lines. The company also operates 13 AAF centres while ensuring the livelihood of over 65,000 artisans.